MacArthur Foundation Announces 2021 ‘Genius’ Grant Winners

The historian and social critic Ibram X. Kendi is used to getting hate mail. And sometimes the disdain for him and his work takes the form of a phone call. So when he does not recognize the number he does not often answer.

Such was the case on a recent day when Dr. Kendi, who wrote the best-selling book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” ignored a call from Chicago. It would take a text-message exchange with the caller and a little online sleuthing, but he eventually discovered that the person calling was from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He was intrigued: Were they calling to talk about a potential research collaboration — or was it something else?

Dr. Kendi let them call again. And when he picked up, he would learn that the foundation was calling to convey happy news — the something else he had allowed as a possibility: He had been awarded a prestigious (and lucrative) MacArthur Fellowship.

“My first words were ‘Are you serious?’” he recalled. Indeed, they were.

“It’s very meaningful — I think to anyone who studies a topic where there’s a lot of acrimony and a lot of pain — to be recognized and to get love mail sometimes,” he said. “And this is one of the greatest forms of that I have ever received.”

Dr. Fleetwood, 48, who is also a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, curated an exhibition by the same name that won praise after its debut at MoMA PS1 last year. In the book and the accompanying museum exhibition, Dr. Fleetwood delves into the cultural and aesthetic significance of the art made by incarcerated people.

“To me, one of the great gifts for people who go to the show or read the book is that it challenges their assumptions about who’s incarcerated, why they are incarcerated and what they do with their time,” Dr. Fleetwood said.

The grant will help the “Marking Time” project expand its footprint on tour, she added, noting that she had recently helped install the exhibition in Birmingham. Ala.

Other fellows in this year’s class include Trevor Bedford, a virologist who is developing real-time tools for tracking virus evolution; Marcella Alsan, a physician and economist who studies how the legacies of discrimination perpetuate health inequalities; and Desmond Meade, a civil rights activist who works to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

And there are several fellows who work with or study technology. Joshua Miele, a technology designer at Amazon, develops devices that help visually impaired or blind people like himself gain access everyday to tech products and digital information. Safiya Noble, a digital media scholar, has written about how search engines reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes.

The youngest fellow is Jordan Casteel, 32, a painter known for portraits that capture everyday encounters with people of color. The oldest is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 70, a choreographer who founded the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women.

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